Over the years, millions of retired state and local workers — including teachers, police officers and firefighters — have received sharply reduced Social Security benefits simply because they have had multiple jobs during their careers and weren’t allowed to pay into Social Security at all of them.
It’s a case of the whole being less than the sum of the parts.
Thirty-three years ago, Congress changed the Social Security benefit formula to add a “Windfall Elimination Provision,” which adjusted some former public employees’ benefits to account for the time they had not paid into Social Security while working in vital public service jobs.
While the intent was to make the system more fair, the formula penalizes those who have had jobs both inside and outside the Social Security system.
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U.S. Reps. Kevin Brady, R-The Woodlands, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, and Richard Neal, D-Mass., have filed a bill to restore fairness in calculating Social Security benefits for these workers.
It would benefit approximately 95 percent of Texas public school teachers, as well as many retirees in teaching and other fields.
HR 711, which AARP fully supports, is also backed by another prominent Texan on Capitol Hill, Rep. Sam Johnson, R-Plano, who chairs the Social Security Subcommittee.
Also actively working to fix the problem is Texan Tim Lee, who as executive director of the Texas Retired Teachers Association leads the largest association for retired public and higher education employees in the country.
Lee has been working for years on a solution that will help teachers and other affected parties.
He notes that retired teachers are losing hundreds of dollars a month in much-needed Social Security benefits and that the problem may be keeping many Texans from becoming teachers at all.
Someone who knows this first-hand is retired Marine Lt. Col. Link Ermis, 54, who paid into Social Security for more than 25 years before taking a job as a middle school teacher in Huntsville in 2007.
If he keeps teaching for another 15 years, his teacher pension and Social Security benefits combined would amount to less than if he just took Social Security based on his past contributions.
“No matter what course I take, I’m punished because I chose to work as a teacher after military retirement,” says Ermis.
AARP President Jeannine English, who along with TRTA’s Lee recently testified to Congress about this topic, says the proposed bill represents “a fair solution that will benefit the 1.6 million workers affected” by the current policy. This includes nearly 150,000 Texans.
Much has changed for the better for educators over the years, but this Social Security provision has lingered on for more than three decades.
So how would public sector workers be better off if the bill becomes law?
Social Security benefits will increase — though we’re not sure how much yet — for those people who are already retired or who turn age 62 before the end of this year.
Everyone else will also see increased benefits once they retire.
At a time when retirement security is increasingly becoming out of reach for millions of workers and their families, we can ill-afford to leave any hard-earned Social Security benefits on the table.
For Patricia Vorhees, a retired teacher from Conroe, it all boils down to an issue of fairness.
“We’re entitled to the money because we earned it,” she says.
“I feel that it is wrong that I, and others like me, collect a very tiny amount of the money we earned.”
Bob Jackson is director of AARP Texas.